For the very best snorkeling on the Big Island of Hawaii, Kealakekua Bay, in the town of Captain Cook, offers a vibrant coral reef teeming with wildlife, from hundreds of species of fish to sea turtles and even dolphins. But in order to reach this spectacular spot, you’ll need to either hike along the challenging and steep Captain Cook Monument Trail or alternatively, boat in on a guided tour.
Opting for a tour is an excellent choice, given you’ll have a knowledgeable guide to show you the best snorkeling spots and teach you about the bay’s incredible wildlife and Kona’s history and culture. With so many options, though, it can be challenging to narrow down which tour operators will provide you with an awesome experience, all while protecting and being respectful of this incredibly special- and fragile- place.
So if you’re an eco-conscious traveler, here’s the three of the best Captain Cook snorkel tours for exploring Kealakekua Bay.
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Pssst… visiting the Big Island? Check out our other posts on this incredible place:
- Kona vs. Hilo- Where Should You Stay?
- Snorkeling at Captain Cook: Everything You Need to Know about the Best Snorkeling on the Big Island
- Green Sand Beach: The Big Island’s Most Unique Beach
- Mauna Kea Hike: Everything You Need to Know About Hiking the Tallest Mountain in the World
Why is Kealakekua Bay Worth Visiting?
Sprawling 315 acres, Kealakekua Bay is the largest of Hawaii’s 11 Marine Life Conservation Districts. These conservation districts serve to protect the delicate coral reefs and conserve the fish biodiversity (a stunning 400+ species of fish call Kealakekua Bay home!), including the colorful parrotfish, yellow tang, and humuhumunukunukapua’a (the state fish of Hawaii!).
To protect the marine life here, there are strict prohibitions on fishing or other types of consumptive activities. In fact, any kind of boat that comes here is required to have a state-issued permit. Because of these restrictions, not only is wildlife plentiful, but they also tend to be more docile towards humans.
Additionally, because you cannot simply drive up to go snorkeling in Captain Cook and can only hike or boat in, the coral here looks untouched by humans, making this one of the best places in Hawaii to snorkel and an unmissable stop to add to your Big Island itinerary!
Beyond its awesome snorkeling, Kealakekua Bay is also historically and culturally significant- it’s believed that ali’i (or ancient Hawaiians chiefs) are buried in the cliff’s walls, overlooking the bay.
Additionally, it’s renowned for being where the famous British explorer and first Westerner to land on the Hawaiian Islands, Captain Cook, met his end. When Cook originally landed on the islands in 1778, he was welcomed and treated well, but by early 1779, he had overstayed his welcome. His crew tried to sail away in February 1779, but was forced to return just four days later to repair a mast on their ship.
The Hawaiians were not too thrilled to see his return and wound up stealing one of his crew’s small cutter vessels. In retaliation, Cook attempted to take the Hawaiians’ high chief, King Kalaniopuu, by force, which ultimately resulted in Cook getting stabbed to death by the Hawaiians protecting their king.
In the 1800s, an obelisk was erected in Kealakekua Bay by the British to commemorate Cook’s death. Fun fact- in 1877, the area immediately surrounding the Captain Cook Monument was deeded to the British for $1 and is still technically considered British soil to this day!
What time of day should I book my Captain Cook Snorkel Tour?
While you’ll have a blast no matter what time of day you go, I’d recommend trying to book as early as you can. Why?
- Spinner dolphins frequently come to rest in the bay in the morning, so this is your best chance to spot them, either while you’re riding in on the boat or even while you’re snorkeling in the water.
Note that it’s illegal to swim within 50 yards of Hawaiian spinner dolphins. So if you’re lucky enough to see them here, please be respectful- while they’re in Kealakekua Bay, they’re almost always doing the dolphin equivalent of sleeping (even if it doesn’t look like it to you). So harassing them is not only a federal crime, but you’re also messing with their sleep patterns, which, in turn, affects their ability to hunt (not very eco-conscious of you, dude)!
Because the waves are typically calmer in the morning, you also have a better chance of seeing other wildlife, like humpback whales during the winter in Hawaii, on your way sailing out to the bay.
- There’s LOTS of tour companies that operate here- the earlier you go, the less boats and other snorkelers you’ll be competing with in the water.
- The afternoon sun here can get pretty intense- nothing is worse than the back of your legs being burnt to a crisp!
The Best Captain Cook Snorkel Tours
We’ve already established that Kealakekua Bay offers some of the best snorkeling on the Big Island and home to some of the world’s most beautiful marine life.
However, coral reefs, like the one right here in the bay, are extremely fragile- and, although they may look like rocks, are living organisms- that must be treated with care.
So it’s super important to select a tour company that does its part to protect the bay and the animals that call it home by following sustainable practices (like anchoring in spots that aren’t disruptive) and by educating its guests on how to respect the reef (like refraining from kicking, standing on, or even touching the coral- it can take up to 10 years for just a teeny piece of coral to grow back!).
Luckily, there’s a nonprofit organization, the Sustainable Tourism Board of Hawai’i that’s dedicated to promoting responsible and sustainable tour operators in Hawaii that follow practices to protect the islands’ incredible natural resources.
The three tour companies listed below are all certified through Hawaii’s Sustainable Tourism Board. This means they have a trained sustainability coordinator on staff, have met sustainability requirements set forth by the board, and pass an annual evaluation. This yearly certification process even includes having a “secret shopper” go on a tour to confirm that responsible tourism practices are being followed. How cool is that?!
Since these tours’ pricing is on par with other operators in the area, why wouldn’t you pick a tour guide who cares about protecting this truly special place?
So, without further adieu, let’s talk tours!
- Departure time: 9 AM
- Duration: 4.5 hours (psst… looking for something shorter? The afternoon option is 3.5 hours)
- Fee includes: Boat and snorkel tour, snorkel equipment, reef safe sunscreen, breakfast, lunch, non-alcoholic drinks, and innertubes for maximum Kealakekua Bay chilling
If I was going to pick one tour company to go with on a Captain Cook snorkel tour, it would be Fair Wind Cruises.
This tour comes with not one, but two meals- breakfast (with Kona coffee!) and lunch. Both are plant-based, because, as Fair Wind puts it, providing “planet-friendly food” is how the company is “simply continuing to evolve our approach towards conducting business responsibly.”
Coffee and plant-based food are great and all, but let’s talk about the tour, y’all. The boat you’ll take out to cruise along the Kona coast is AWESOME- it has underwater viewing boxes, so you can see what’s in the water around you, TWO 15-foot waterslides, and a dive platform.
As you sail to Kealakekua Bay, your knowledgeable guide will tell stories about the interesting historical landmarks you’ll pass along the way, like the last battle at the Kuamo’o Battlefield or the Royal Hōlua Slide, the largest one in the state. Hōlua was a prestigious- and exceedingly dangerous- sport, where riders slid down steep hills of volcanic rocks at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour!
Once you’re at the bay itself, you’ll have two and a half hours to snorkel to your heart’s content, with the informative tour guides waiting to answer any questions about the marine life you may encounter. You can even SNUBA here for an extra fee!
Fair Wind tends to have a bit more of an energetic and jovial atmosphere, thanks to its whimsical boat design (hello- there’s a frickin’ waterslide!), larger capacity of up to 100 people, and cash bar for the last hour of the tour.
- Departure Time: 9:00 AM
- Duration: 4.5 hours (they also have a shorter three-hour tour available here)
- Fee includes: Boat and snorkel tour, lunch, snacks and water/juice, snorkeling gear
If you’re interested in trying out snorkeling in more than just Kealakekua Bay, this is an excellent option.
On this Big Island snorkeling tour, you’ll start off your morning snorkeling at Puʻuhonua O Honaunau (commonly referred to as “Two Step”), which, in my opinion, is the second best place to snorkel on the Big Island.
After your second snorkeling stop of the day at Kealakekua Bay, your captain will spend some time navigating through lava tubes and sea caves along Kona’s volcanic coastline (you may just get lucky and spot a monk seal here!).
Sea Quest’s staff are extremely friendly and knowledgeable, pointing out interesting historical and cultural sites throughout the cruise and finding the very best places to snorkel. And beyond that, you’ll get the staff’s undivided attention- at a maximum, only 14 people are allowed on the tour at any given time!
- Departure time: 9 AM
- Duration: 4.5 hours (a three-hour afternoon tour is also available)
- Fee includes: Boat and snorkel tour, breakfast and lunch, snorkeling gear, flotation noodles, fish identification cards, reef safe sunscreen
Sea Paradise offers another Big Island snorkeling tour where you’ll get in the water in two different locations- Kealakekua Bay and, if the weather permits, Red Hill, a much less crowded spot along the south of the island.
Captain Cook will be the first stop of the day, where the friendly staff will tell you about the bay, its ecology and history. You’ll get about an hour to snorkel here- and what’s cooler, the staff are happy to jump in the water with you and take you on a guided snorkel tour to point out the best wildlife underwater!
Afterward, you’ll head back on the boat for lunch and sail south to Red Hill. Because it’s a bit farther from Kona, there’s very few tour companies that come out here, so you’ll likely have its colorful reef, abundant wildlife, and underwater rock formations, like lava tubes and archways, all to yourself.
After about an hour or so in the water here, you’ll cruise back to Kona and have the option to purchase tropical cocktails to sip on as you take in the views of the rocky coastline.
Justin and I used Sea Paradise for a Kona manta ray snorkel tour and were SO impressed by the guides- it was obvious how much they enjoyed their jobs and their passion for Hawaii’s spectacular marine life. Highly, highly recommend!
What should you bring on a Captain Cook Snorkel Tour?
These Big Island snorkeling tours provide pretty much everything you need, but there are a few items I’d recommend making sure are on your Hawaii packing list to bring along:
- Towel: Bring along a quick-drying towel to wrap around yourself after you get out of the water. With the breeze from the boat, it can get pretty chilly while you’re sailing, especially when you’re soaking wet!
- Dry bag: Whenever my husband and I do any kind of water tours or activities, I bring along my dry bag (that doubles as a backpack) for my electronics and other items I don’t want to get wet, like my jacket and keys.
- GoPro: Cuz did you really swim with a humuhumunukunukapua’a if it isn’t on camera? GoPros are amazing little devices that take great photos and videos both above and underwater (up to 33 feet deep), have tons of cool features, like in-camera stabilization, and literally fit into your pocket. Amazing!
- Thermal rash guard (for women and for men): The water in Kona ranges from about 77-81 degrees- while that may sound toasty warm, it can feel downright chilly while you’re actually in it. In fact, during my first trip to Hawaii, I had to stop snorkeling during several excursions because I kept shivering so much in the water.
I picked up a thermal rash guard to wear during my more recent trips to Maui and the Big Island and I’m so glad I did. It feels way warmer in the water and allows me to keep having fun snorkeling to my heart’s content!
- Reef-safe sunscreen: The Hawaiian sun is real, y’all, so be sure to bring along plenty of sun protection. We all know that UV rays can cause skin cancer, but did you also know that certain types of sunscreen contain chemicals that cause genetic mutations in coral, leading to coral bleaching and effectively, coral cancer?
So let’s be a friend to coral and be sure to pick up reef safe sunscreen. This kind is my fave and literally smells like a tropical vacation in a bottle.
- Motion sickness pills: You’re going to be on a boat for four-plus hours- ‘nuff said.
There you have it- the 3 best Captain Cook snorkel tours for travelers looking for the most sustainable and eco-friendly tours out there. Now get out there and see some sea turtles (from a respectful distance, of course!)! Do you have any questions about any of the tours listed above? Let me know in the comments below!